This is not new. Ever since Mark McGwire appeared on the Hall of Fame ballot for the first time in 2007, a great many Hall of Fame voters have made it their mission to deny entrance to any player who was associated with performance enhancing drugs during his playing career. Or, even if the player was not formally associated via a report, a prosecution an admission or a positive drug test, if he was assumed to be a PED user he has fallen short of election. And the basis of those assumptions range from “fair” to “totally and utterly baseless.”
The 2014 election results are no exception. Here are eight players — I’ve dubbed them The PED Eight — who, but for the fact or the presumption of their PED use, would certainly be in the Hall of Fame by now:
- Craig Biggio: Yes, he fell just short, yes he’ll likely be inducted in 2015 and no, no one has ever made a credible, public accusation of Biggio using PEDs. But it’s madness to think that he wouldn’t already be in the Hall of Fame but for a whisper campaign that, however small, is real. Former New York Times columnist Murray Chass believes that Biggio did PEDs. ESPN’s Pedro Gomez left Biggio off his ballot and, when asked why, was quite cagey about it. If he simply did not feel Biggio measured up, he’d just say that. There are likely many others who do as well, either as a generalized suspicion of players of his era, more specific suspicion of an Astros team in which famous PED user Ken Caminiti was a clubhouse leader as Biggio was coming into professional maturity or because someone told them so third hand. Biggio was an all-around great player who finished with over 3,000 hits. He would’ve been inducted a year ago but for the whispers.
- Jeff Bagwell: Biggio’s teammate is more directly in the crosshairs of a PED suspicion and, consequently, a PED-fueled Hall of Fame blackballing. Several writers have explicitly accused Bagwell of using PEDs, despite the fact that he has never been named as a PED user by any credible source and never tested positive for PEDs during his career. Bagwell had 449 homers and an OPS+ of 149. His career numbers are more or less comparable to a man who was born on the very same day he was: Frank Thomas. Thomas was just elected on his first ballot, with over 80% of the vote. Surely Bagwell would have been by now if not for the unsubstantiated allegations. Or perhaps if, like Thomas, he spent many years speaking out against PEDs toward the end of his career.
- Mike Piazza: He’s in the same boat as Bagwell. Many have openly accused Piazza of PED use, none have provided any evidence of his PED use at all. And, for what it’s worth, he has denied ever using PEDs. Still, he is a PED user in the eyes of a great number of Hall of Fame voters, as is evidenced by his vote total of 62.2% this year. Which, yes, is quite good and is inching him closer to induction. But given his baseball resume — he is arguably the greatest hitting catcher who ever lived — he would have been voted in on the first ballot if not for the suspicions of voters.
- Barry Bonds: Now we transition from the players who are merely suspected to the ones who either certainly or almost certainly did use performance enhancing drugs. Multiple well-researched books have been written chronicling the drug use of Barry Bonds, and multiple government and Major League Baseball investigations bolstered this evidence. The feds couldn’t bust Bonds for perjury when he claimed he did not use PEDs, but that says more about the criminal justice process than it does the actual information supporting his drug use. Still, as many, including this writer, have argued, Barry Bonds’ baseball exploits are so extraordinary — and were even so extraordinary before his documented PED use in the latter part of his career — that he should be in the Hall of Fame regardless of what he injected or rubbed into his body. Obviously, however, the majority of Hall of Fame voters disagree with that assessment, and continue to vote against Bonds on the grounds of poor character, even if his baseball bonafides are better than two or three other Hall of Famers glued together.
- Roger Clemens: The same story as Bonds, though he has more stridently denied using PEDs. Those denials come in the face, however, of accusations from people who were willing to go under oath in courts of law to make them, and are supported by at least some physical and documentary evidence. Ask any Hall of Fame voter if the Rocket used PEDs and you can bet that virtually all of them will say yes. 35.4 % of them, however, don’t care, and voted for Clemens this year, agreeing that the Hall of Fame case for Clemens, PEDs notwithstanding, is overwhelming.
- Mark McGwire: He admitted taking PEDs on national television after never previously denying that he took them. So much for honesty. The voters have raked him over the coals for years now. He only received 11% of the vote this year and it’s not at all certain that he’ll remain on the ballot beyond next year, as he is at risk of falling below the 5% threshold for eligibility. But for his drug use, McGwire would certainly be in the Hall now, as he was roundly talked about as a sure-fire future Hall of Famer when he was active and before the PED story began to dominate the conversation.
- Sammy Sosa: 600+ home runs should be an automatic ticket to Cooperstown, but Sosa is hanging on just above the 5% threshold and is likely to fall off the ballot next year. Blame his presence — at least reported by the New York Times several years ago — on the list of players who tested positive for PEDs in 2004 when Major League Baseball ran a trial drug testing program to see if wider drug testing was needed. That information was never meant to be public. The test results were to be destroyed, but were seized by overzealous federal investigators before they could be. But its existence, even if only substantiated by one news outlet and denied by Sosa himself to this day has been enough to keep him out of the Hall of Fame. More than anyone, really, Sosa is believed by Hall voters to be a creation of PEDs — a player who would not have been more than very good if he didn’t take drugs — than any other player on this list, the rest of whom are generally perceived to have merely enhanced naturally-existing talent. It’s too easy a story by half and suggests some things many voters may not be comfortable acknowledging about culture and ethnicity, but that’s the narrative and nothing is going to change it, it seems.
- Rafael Palmeiro: A 3,000 hit, 500 homer run player who has the ignominy of being the only one on this list to test positive for PEDs during his playing career and while a drug testing and penalty regime was in place. What’s more, he did it mere weeks after wagging his finger at Congressmen who had subpoenaed him, defiantly stating that he had never taken performance enhancing drugs. Oops. Palmeiro received a ten-game suspension for the flunked test, but received a defacto lifetime ban from Cooperstown for the test plus the finger-wagging. He fell below 5% this year and will not be on the writers’ ballot again.
There’s a chance that the current ballot has a couple more guys who have lost votes due to PED suspicion. I think most of the reason for Jeff Kent’s criminally low 15.2% vote total is because voters don’t appreciate his talent and because the ballot is crowded, but it would not shock me if someone accused the power-hitting second baseman of something at some point over the next few years. And of course, at least a few voters submit blank ballots or vote for no one who played after some point in the mid-90s as some sort of generalized protest against the Steroids Era. But for the most part, I think these eight are the current players being kept out of the Hall of Fame because of PED use, real or imagined.
And their ranks will grow. Gary Sheffield, who was named in The Mitchell Report, comes onto the ballot next year. Others, who either tested positive during baseball’s testing era (Manny Ramirez), had their names leaked from the 2004 trial tests (David Ortiz) or who suffer the same baseless whisper campaigns that bedevil Bagwell, Biggio or Piazza (Albert Pujols) will have to run this same gauntlet. I predict most will be caught up in limbo for many, many years.
Will they ever make it? Or, for that matter, will The PED Eight? Biggio probably will. I think Bagwell and Piazza have a decent shot. The evidence against them is so much weaker (or non-existent) and their current vote totals and time remaining on the ballot suggests that, over time, they’ll overcome.
As for the others? It’s hard to see it happening absent a fundamental change in the voting process. One that removes the “character clause” from Hall of Fame ballot or radically changes the Hall of Fame electorate to favor people who prefer a bit more evidence before denying otherwise worthy players of baseball’s highest honor. Or, in my preferred solution, a committee is formed to look into what are becoming mounting and damn nigh embarrassing oversights by the Hall of Fame voters. A committee which appreciates that, drugs or not, Barry Bonds was one of the best baseball players in history. A committee which appreciates that Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire didn’t hatch the idea of taking banned substances themselves nor did they do it in a vacuum.
I’m not holding my breath, of course. Against the current backdrop of the Hall of Fame’s structure and voting, that would be suicide.